Tag Archives: database

Cure Analysis Paralysis with this Visual

In this wonderful era of exciting, off-the-shelf prospect research tools and one-click-away data analysis, how is it that we still struggle to prioritize our donors and prospects? But we do. The results come in, the scores are assigned and yet there are still way more highly-rated prospects than our staff could possibly contact. Which names do we call on first?

Human brains are not wired to interpret and act upon long lists of names with appended information, such as those found in our databases and Excel spreadsheets. And when you need 50 names, but there are 300 that all have the same top score, it can be paralyzing!

Whenever I hear about data visualizations I always see pictures of charts and graphs in my mind’s eye. But when I was grappling with how to deliver a prioritized prospect list to a client recently I decided against charts and graphs. I wanted something that would give them a colorful visual with graphics, but also actual donor prospect names with dollar signs.

The organization had decided to create a more formal corporate giving program. It had been happening accidentally and now they wanted to get serious. So she sent me a list of over a thousand of their best donors based on giving history. My job was to sort it out and send it back.

We decided to focus on two variables that we labeled engagement and gift potential. Engagement was based on RFM scoring, which stands for recency, frequency, and monetary and represents a giving history analysis. We also appended some estimated sales and other data to determine gift potential.

As you can see from the picture below, the key to the data visualization was limiting the presentation two only two, easily understood and highly relevant variables. (The information in the grid is fictional.)

Click to enlarge

Following is how you “read” the picture for this donor list:

  • Stars = high engagement, high gift potential
  • Loyal = high engagement, low gift potential
  • Opportunities = low engagement, high gift potential
  • Likes = low engagement, low gift potential

I knew that my client, a talented fundraising professional, really wanted to begin her efforts with a fighting chance of receiving major gifts in the first year. Who wouldn’t want that? It was up to me as a researcher to understand how to translate the organization’s fundraising program intentions into data points, create or get those data points, and then translate it back into fundraising actions.

My client didn’t need to understand exactly how I sorted and filtered to assign donor prospects into each of these categories. She needed to be able to recognize some names, be pleased and surprised to see some names she didn’t recognize, and be able to quickly make decisions about which ones she will call tomorrow.

No matter what kind of fundraising professional you are – front-line, prospect research, or something in between – you now have a simple way to visualize two variables that you can ask for or apply to the data yourself.

If you have a data visualization triumph I’d love to hear about it! Reply to this email or better yet, comment on the blog post.

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How To Find New Major Gift Prospects?

Partner with a prospect research professional! As a fundraiser, why should you partner with a prospect research professional to find new prospects? Couldn’t you use a research software product or buy a prospect list?

Whether you look inside or outside of your database, you can easily generate a prospect list at the click of your mouse. Silicon Valley is certain that data technology solutions can fix whatever ails us – and in theory, why not? But in practice our data is every bit as fallible as we humans who create it.

Prospecting for donors follows this same pattern. Sure you can get a list of prospects from software, but you will be stumbling over errors in no time. Things like a donor who made a memorial gift when her dad died, but is unlikely to give at that level again. Or a common last name erroneously matched to wealth.

And then there are the prospects that are omitted. Where is the woman who volunteers in your program and lives in that multi-million dollar home? Or what about the young couple that make a small annual gift, but you know they have inherited wealth?

It doesn’t mean that the wealth screening or prospect list is useless. It means you need someone who understands the data and fundraising to partner with you to refine the list. You need a well-trained prospect research professional.

Following are five ways that partnering with a prospect research professional can get your major gifts program galloping:

  1. Verify the data: A wealth screening zips through thousands of records. When a researcher performs a double-check on your highest-rated prospects, you don’t waste time with duds.
  2. Track progress: Without a way to track your major gifts progress, your chances of achieving your goals drops dramatically. Prospect research professionals excel at tracking and reporting.
  3. Deliver custom information: Every organization is different and each fundraiser is different. Partnering with a prospect research professional creates a give and take resulting in information delivered how and when you need it most.
  4. Creative sourcing: The prospects you need might not surface with the usual screening products. Well-trained prospect research professionals creatively source the right prospects inside and outside the database.
  5. Translate and adapt: As the fundraiser, how well do you need or want to know the details of data technology? A well-trained prospect research professional translates the software, adapts, and delivers it to you in a form you can use.
Data technology is amazing and has transformed the way we fundraise. There’s no question about it. However, being able to achieve major gift fundraising success requires more than data.

When you are ready to dedicate time and attention to cultivating, soliciting, and stewarding major gifts, enlisting the services of a well-trained prospect research professional will produce the forward momentum you need to achieve major gift success.

Warning! Anyone can do analytics.

colorfulTwo of the strongest characteristics prospect research professionals have in common is insatiable curiosity combined with a surprising boldness. We are proudly generalists! And very good at it too.

I was inspired by a visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in September where an APRA Pennsylvania member shared how she fearlessly tackled fundraising analytics to upgrade the organization’s major gift prospect pools.

Suzanne Harris is a Research Analyst and her supervisor is Sarah Cadbury, Director of Prospect Research and Management. A new researcher, in 2014 Suzanne was a successful student of the Prospect Research Institute’s inaugural Introduction to Prospect Profiles course. When she joined the Philadelphia Museum of Art she jumped right into a campaign and the prospect identification and tracking that goes along with that.

Sarah had created a campaign rating – the amount a specific prospect was anticipated to give – as a way of sorting and compiling the campaign gift table. They also had external vendor ratings, including a capacity rating from 2014. As discussions swirled around segmenting prospects effectively it became clear to Suzanne that a score based on internal data was needed.

At a previous organization Suzanne had read Joshua Birkholz’ book, Fundraising Analytics: Using Data to Guide Strategy, and had become interested in creating an RFM (Recency, Frequency, Monetary) score, but she hadn’t quite figured out how to adapt the book’s method to their constituency.

At the Philadelphia Museum of Art she was using the Raiser’s Edge donor database. Raiser’s Edge provided summary financial data, which was exactly what she needed to calculate RFM.

But still, Suzanne struggled with how to make it come together for the Museum. She began having conversations internally with database/IT folks. She emphasized how the RFM data would be used and why that was important.

She attended an APRA conference where she heard Joshua Birkholz talk about the value of fundraising analytics. Upon returning to the office she read her notes out loud, verbatim, to persuade people of the importance of a score like RFM.

Then, finally, it all came together in one meeting. Suzanne sat down for about an hour and half with an internal database guru and they worked out how the RFM could be automatically calculated using an intermediary Access database. They cherry-picked the data points most relevant to the Museum and created the scores based on them.

Suzanne’s “I can do anything” generalist attitude, combined with her ability to boldly persuade others of the importance of an internal score had resulted in success!

Marcy Serkin, Deputy Director of Development for Development Operations, suggested they roll out the RFM scores with a party. So they did. The party was an inclusive, all-staff party. People who had no idea of what ratings were learned about them. They threw the party on a Monday because the Museum is closed on Mondays and the gift officers are usually in the office.

Much like any other product launch party, they introduced RFM with a theme, fun activities, and education. Inspired by the art of Lisa Frank, they chose a colorful rainbow and unicorn theme.

Data Mining: Because Unicorns Don’t Find Themselves.

They created custom stickers and let people “taste the rainbow” with Skittles candy. They played a game, too, where everyone had cards with RFM scores. The last three people standing – the unicorns in the room – all had high scores and were not assigned to a gift officer. Their prize was a swipe at the unicorn piñata!

Suzanne is not a statistician or a data scientist. She is a prospect research professional. A generalist!

She used her prospect research knowledge to persuade others about the importance of internal scoring and to collaborate with her to create and launch the scoring so that it could have a positive impact on the campaign – and even beyond the campaign to annual fund and planned giving.

Suzanne is a prospect research hero! You can be, too. Be confident in your skills and boldly persuade others to use research effectively for fundraising.

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Join the Resource Collections online community to access this video tutorial.


Fire your Prospect Researcher! Artificial Intelligence (AI) has arrived.


For years now we’ve been told that Artificial Intelligence was going to take over prospect research tasks. Truth is, it has. Well, some of them anyway.

Consider wealth screenings. What used to take month after month of tedious, routine, baseline capacity rating work now takes less than an hour. Upload your file, it processes, and presto! You have gift capacity ratings on your prospects based on external wealth matches.

Or how about the user-friendly lookup tools, such as iWave’s PRO, that remove the first step of searching that prospect research professionals used to perform?

Does all of this mean prospect research is on the fast track for complete takeover by the machines? Should you fire your researcher? No way!

Artificial Intelligence has had a lot of hype over the years and very little real action – until now. A few events have led to some breakthroughs:

  • The internet has made vast amounts of data available, which can be used to train computers.
  • Graphical Processing Units (GPUs), the specialized chips used in PCs and video-game consoles to generate graphics, have been applied to the algorithms used in deep learning, a type of Artificial Intelligence.
  • Capacity to run GPUs can be rented from cloud providers such as Amazon and Microsoft, allowing start-ups to innovate.

Self-driving cars may still be on the horizon, but the bots are on the road already! They can schedule appointments on your calendar, draft replies to emails, and even read radiology imaging studies more accurately than a radiologist. The Economist describes the opportunity and threat quite succinctly as follows:

 “What determines vulnerability to automation is not so much whether the work concerned is manual or white-collar, but whether or not it is routine.” (6/25/2016)






It’s easy to leap to the conclusion that prospect research professionals will lose their jobs to the machine – much of what we researchers do is routine – but that would be forgetting how machines have changed the world in the past.

Across the centuries, people have feared the march of the machines. In the late 1700’s to early 1800’s the Industrial Revolution rocked our world. As recently as the 1980’s, the rise of personal computers revolutionized the way we work. And with every introduction, much hand-wringing and predictions of unemployment were had.

How will prospect research professionals likely weather the advancing army of machine algorithms and programs?

Much the same as we adapted to wealth screenings and tools like iWave’s PRO. We learn new skills that wrap around the new technology. We leverage the new technology to work for us and for our fundraising team. We change the tasks we perform.

Prospect research professionals have a unique blend of skills. We can scan mountains of information and pull it together in a way that is meaningful for your specific need, whether that is creating a $5M gift strategy or a $5B campaign. We recognize the opportunities for our organizations in the data patterns the machine discovers.

If you want your organization to keep in step with the advances of machine learning, do NOT fire your researcher! Instead, reassure your prospect research professional of her value and insist that she take advantage of training that will give her the skills to use new technology. If you do this, she will be better able to guide you into new worlds, such as fundraising analytics … and beyond!

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3 Steps to Building a More Comprehensive Prospect Profile

By Jill McCarville, Marketing and Communication Manager, iWave Information Systems

head-746550_1920It’s almost lunchtime when a fundraiser comes to you with a new assignment:  They have a meeting with Suzie in two weeks and need to know who this person is – does she have a history of giving, does she have a connection to your cause, how much does she have to give?  Next stop, your prospect research tool.

The 3 fundamental steps to building a prospect profile remain the same: Create, customize, complete.  Okay, so those may not come as a surprise to you.  But from a software company’s point of view, there may be some profile building features within your tool that you haven’t been leveraging.  Use these features to gain deeper insight into your prospect and make your job easier. At iWave we recognize that there are many different research tools, each with different functionalities.  However, some of the features highlighted below may exist in your tool and you just didn’t know about them or haven’t had a chance to try them.  Try these steps to make your profile building easier and faster and -who knows- maybe even in time for lunch.


Our data tells us that the majority of users begin with a general integrated search (360search) across all datasets at one time.  In fact, in our tool, there were over 1.3 million 360searches done last year alone.  This broad search will help you identify which datasets/categories contain lots of information on your prospect and in which datasets you’ll need to dive deeper.  Now you can start painting the picture of your prospect’s employment, income, real estate holdings, board affiliations, net worth, stock holdings, history of charitable giving and political giving, etc.  Simply start selecting the records that you know, or are pretty confident, are your Suzie and add them to her profile.

Now, you might be saying, “But what if it’s a common name?”  No problem.  Once you’ve done a broad search across all of your tool’s datasets, you can narrow your search to find more information about your prospect, their spouse, and even their private companies or trusts. Exploring individual datasets with additional filters might even uncover key information you weren’t able to find using a broad, high-level search.

For example, if you’re trying to find Suzie’s real estate holdings, but your initial search didn’t turn up any property, that doesn’t mean she doesn’t own real estate.  As you know, it’s much more likely that she does.  After all, real estate accounted for about 20% of a HNWI’s total assets globally (CapGemini World Wealth Report 2013).  It’s possible that the property is listed in someone else’s name, a trust, or LLC.  Time to check the real estate database.  Try reverse searching by Suzie’s mailing address (rather than her name) because in many cases people link all of their properties to a primary residence for billing and other mail.  You can find additional search tips for other datasets here.

As you explore each of the datasets and “tease out” real matches to your prospect, select those records and add them to the profile you created in the broad search.  But first, ensure your tool automatically filters out duplicate records to maintain the accuracy of your scores and ratings.


A common perception we hear in the industry is that profiles must be created externally because tools simply don’t deliver the quality of profile you need.  For some tools though, this isn’t the case.  In our tool alone, researchers create over 40,000 profiles each year containing over 1.8 million records.  One of the keys to creating so many profiles is customizing your research tool.

In the first step, you chose which records to add to Suzie’s profile.  Now, you need to add and delete records as you validate them.  This will eliminate false positives so you can be confident in the accuracy of the profile and the scores/ratings within it.  Depending on your tool’s features, you’ll also want to select your own capacity ranges (used to determine Suzie’s capacity rating), and the proper affinity ranges (so the score accurately reflects Suzie’s connection to your specific cause).


Almost there!  Once you’ve sketched out the prospect profile, it’s time to add the finishing touches.  Consider adding Suzie’s picture to the front for easy identification.  Then add any articles you may have found on her from other sources.

Jen Filla, along with other industry leaders, also suggests you add additional value to a profile by synthesizing the data you’ve gathered.  As a researcher, you are the expert on your prospects.  This is your chance to analyze the records and provide observations.  For example, what do Suzie’s SEC transactions tell you about her?  Do you see any patterns or trends in her charitable giving?  What clues can you find from her board affiliations?

Use the front page lead summary section to summarize your prospect’s current situation and provide recommendations.  In fact, in our tool, this lead summary was created based on the requests of researchers. A front and center spot to highlight the one thing the fundraiser needs to know about Suzie.  You can then use the built-in notes sections to tell the full story about Suzie as a prospect – who she likes to give to, when she likes to give, and how much she can give at one particular time.

Many people like to create and use the profile, score, and notes built within the tool.  However, this isn’t the only option.  Feel free to export the profile in a Word document for further treatment, or print a short summary profile to share right away.  And don’t forget to set an alert on the profile so you receive updates when there are any changes to Suzie’s records.

You are the expert at creating prospect profiles for your organization, and hopefully these tips will help you leverage your research tool to build better, smarter profiles.  Happy profiling!

Now, what’s for lunch?

About the Author
jill color

Jill McCarville is the marketing and communication manager at iWave Information Systems, a company that delivers software solutions to education, healthcare and nonprofit organizations to help them raise more major gifts.  iWave’s solutions are an asset to fundraising departments of any size. From Ivy league schools like Yale and Stanford, to healthcare and arts organizations like Doctors Without Borders and the Smithsonian Institution, iWave has assisted organizations in the United States, Canada, and overseas.

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The Devil’s in the Data! When should you get an audit?

binary-503598_1280Guest post by Darrel Spacone

Stop and think about the health of the data in your donor database.  When was the last time any cleaning or maintenance was done? Is it part of a normal routine?

We all run into situations on an almost daily basis that scream “Dirty Data”, “Duplicate Data”, “Useless Data”, etc.  But what are you doing about it? Do you know what to do or how to do it?  There are always issues with data that will creep up over and over again until they are addressed.

Your donor database is highly complicated and detailed. Over the course of time, how many staff and volunteers, with different skill sets, have been allowed to edit your data in some way and contribute to the less than stellar shape that it is in?

Most organizations face the same issues, but how they deal with or ignore them separates them. An audit is the starting point to finding out exactly what and how much is amiss, addressing it, and then making maintenance and cleaning part of your normal routine.

In my career I have had direct experience with wearing many hats and having heavy workloads thrust upon me as a nonprofit employee. Sometimes there is little or no time to navigate the data trail, finding and fixing common, glaring issues.

You know or suspect you have problems, but how and when can you tackle it?

If you don’t have someone on staff with the expertise to clean up your donor database, consider hiring a consultant to provide you with an audit. An audit will identify what you are doing right, what is going wrong, and what steps you need to take to get back on track.

So, when should you get an audit?  NOW of course!

Following are some of the benefits of an audit:

  • Mailings: An audit will expose missing titles, names, addresses, addressees, salutations.  Are you mailing to or soliciting minors? What about your service area or state? Do you target solicitations to certain counties? Is the county field populated?
  • Duplicate records: Do you have the same person with multiple records?  Are they necessary?  Are you mailing to spouses or other household members separately? Should you?
  • Duplicate addresses: Every time you add a new, preferred address, are you checking the address tab?
  • Merged records: Duplicate information can be copied over during this process.
  • Security: Are you lazy when it comes to security?  Does everyone have the same access regardless of their job function and capabilities?  Often this is the single largest problem and causes the most damage.
  • Deceased constituents: Are you mailing to or soliciting dead people? Have you overlooked the surviving spouse?
  • Record archiving: How long do you solicit a prospect? How long has the record been in the system without any activity?  Do you know how to keep your history, but remove from your mailings?

Data underpins all of your development efforts from gift acknowledgement, invitations, prospect identification, stewardship and beyond. When your data becomes a tangled web, your ability to fundraise suffers. Donors are not thanked and renewed. Major gift opportunities are lost forever. When you add up the losses incurred from bad data, the return on investment in your data skyrockets.

The Devil’s in the data! Make it Good.

darrel.spaconeAbout Darrel Spacone, bCRE
Darrel Spacone is the Chief Information Officer at Donor-Data-Done, LLC, a Blackbaud Certified Raiser’s Edge Consulting firm. With thirteen years of experience with Raiser’s Edge, he has helped healthcare, arts, child welfare and social services organizations identify problems and fix their donor databases. He provides audits and solutions, so that you can focus on your day-to-day tasks without missing a beat, saving you time and money while you are raising money.
Connect with Darrel:

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Let’s Talk Research Life, Not Your Job

Many of the important decisions about your life are made when you are not in the room.

Don’t believe me? Tell me, were you there when…

  • Your spouse decided whether or not to keep dating you early on?
  • The sellers decided to accept your bid on the house?
  • Your mortgage company decided to risk a loan on you?
  • Your boss decided to hire you over other candidates?

Who is going to be in the room when you go for a pay raise or a promotion? Who decides whether your department has enough in the budget to send you to an industry conference?

The recent APRA Prospect Development conference in New Orleans demonstrated with gusto that our field is alive and thriving. Many in our profession have become a driving force for success in their fundraising departments. How did those individuals get to the place where the decision makers felt really good about fundraising research?

Maybe you feel a bit like Dorothy when she first approached the Wizard of Oz – a little intimidated by leadership. But let me take you behind the curtain…

The Influencers

In social media we hear a lot of talk about finding the influencer – the person with the biggest following and the highest engagement.  In your office, many of the same rules apply. Influencers are those who interact with a lot of people and have direct control or influence over decision making.

Make a list of how many people you interact with. How many of them directly control or influence decisions that are important to you?

You might be surprised who turns up on your list. What about the president’s assistant? She might interact with a large number of people, including you. Does the president listen to her when she has an opinion?

The Plan Man

Now that you have the list of people you interact with in your organization, pull out a fresh sheet of paper and make a list of all of the people who influence the decision that is most important to you. Maybe that’s training and using analytics tools, attending a conference, or implementing a new process.

Take your two lists and identify a few people that are on both lists – not too many – that you could develop a better relationship with. Treat them the same way you know how to treat donors. Create a cultivation plan that builds rapport, engages the person on relevant topics of interest, and gives the person more of what s/he wants. Ask good questions. What is her biggest pain point? Help her somehow.

You might also find that by developing a deeper relationship with a few key people, you meet more of the decision makers in your office.

Now that you have your cultivation plans, decide what three words you want people to think of when they think of you or your department. Think it through carefully. Now use those words when you talk about yourself and your work. I don’t mean to go bragging on yourself, but in regular conversation consciously use those words.

Not only will people begin using those very same words to describe you and your work, but you will begin more closely aligning your behaviors with those descriptors.

For more than 15 years , my three words have been:
Integrity | Accountability | Growth

And, yes, I need to be reminded to use them more!

Relationship Time

At conferences like APRA’s Prospect Development conference, the visionary ideas presented, the cross-pollination of ideas and sentiments with colleagues, and the new skills learned can be transformational.

But this year, my biggest takeaway was how important it is to choose time spent on relationships very thoughtfully.

We all know in life that not everyone will like us. But making decisions about who to spend our precious time with is never easy. If there are people in your life who energize you, who excite your curiosity by being different, who bring out the best in you (add your own criteria), then invest in them. If there are people who don’t do all those good things for you (or you for them), then gently step away.

When you deliberately examine your social networks both inside and outside the office, strategically choose the people to invest your relationship energy with, and understand and promote your own core values, you will succeed. Paths will illuminate. Opportunities will arise you couldn’t have dreamed up.

Your Job or Your Research Life?

It’s up to you to define success in all aspects of your life. For me, research infuses almost every part of my life. Methodically approaching any kind of problem – treating it like a research project – has been my modus operandi since I was a child. Back when it felt like I could learn about anything just by reading books in the library. Nothing is too difficult if you have a method, an approach.

If you want more out of your research job, consider tweaking the phrase to research career – or even research life!

More Resources

Takeaways from other APRA peeps:


Carla Harris has been inspiring my career for years! Maybe she will inspire you too.


Speaking of methodology, check out Marianne Pelletier’s resource: What Analytics Can Do for Your Fund-Raising Shop



Selling Anonymous Donor Info – for or against?

Today the U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether or not to uphold Vermont’s law against selling prescription info to data mining companies. It’s a privacy issue with parallels to nonprofit fundraising – or is it? SCOTUSblog has a wonderfully readable account of the case.

In Vermont, when drug stores fill a doctor’s prescription they are required to record the doctor’s name and address, the name, dosage and quantity of the drug, the date and place where the prescription was filled, and the patient’s age and gender — but not patient name and address. Drug stores are required to keep this digital information and they make money selling it to data mining companies who sell it to the pharmaceutical industry who use it for marketing drugs. But the information is also available to insurance companies, medical research institutions, and law enforcement authorities. Vermont law keeps the information from the data mining companies, but not others.

So once again we have personal data, which many in the public perceive as being ill-used or over-used by huge corporations like big pharma, but which is also being used for important public benefits like disease tracking, clinical trials and law enforcement. Can we say no to one user and not another? Do we give up the benefits to keep the info completely private?

Although this case might seem far removed from the world of not-for-profit fundraising, it isn’t. Blackbaud is a huge corporation with the dominant market share of donor database software – Raiser’s Edge. And they are moving their customers online, which means Blackbaud holds the keys to your donor data. They conduct lots of useful fundraising industry research including their Index of Charitable Giving. Where do they get the info?

“Each month, we draw actual giving statistics from the databases of thousands of participating organizations using a variety of fundraising systems to determine how much revenue was raised in the prior month.”

I’m not sure if that means that they use their clients’ data with permission or whether they collect data from clients and non-clients. Does it matter? Nonprofits are providing their donor information to Blackbaud for research – but stripped of identifying information. Is it restricted to freely available research studies or do they also use it for commercial purposes? Does that matter?

In March of 2010 I wrote about Google’s use of “data dust”. I suggested we should be able to use our own “donor dust” to help create a better experience for our donors. But it makes me uncomfortable to think of the possibility of Blackbaud sweeping up our collective donor dust and then reselling it for profit or using it for their own marketing.

The question shares many similarities with  the prescription drug case in Vermont. There will be good and meaningful uses for following fundraising trends gleaned from a corporation’s clients’ donor data, but is it legal and is it ethical?

Spire2 Added as New Resource Partner

It takes a community to support a nonprofit organization or academic institution and Aspire Research Group is pleased to announce that Spire2 has been added to our Resource Partners. As a fundraiser, you have many needs and want an expert that gets results. Spire2 is just such an expert:

  • Designs and develops direct mail campaigns that get opened
  • Creates email communication programs that convert strangers into friends
  • Develops websites that don’t just tell people about your mission, but become part of the way you are reaching your mission

Prospect research is most effective when you have a donor acquisition strategy as well as a strong annual campaign for unrestricted dollars. Data mining for major gift prospects works best when your database is full of well-cared donors and prospects. Spire2 can help you get you get there.

Call or email Jeff James at Spire2 today and ask him about my favorite storyhow he helped Wheaton College reach out to its young alumni, who are now giving at the same percentage as the general alumni population. Call 630-462-2567 or email jjames at spire2.com. You won’t be disappointed!

Are You a Leaky *Nonprofit* Corporation?

I’m often a little behind reading my subscription to the Economist, but I keep chugging along because they have so many brainy articles on things that often relate well to nonprofits and fundraising. Their article in February on The Leaky Corporation is no exception.

If you are awake then you are likely to have heard something about WikiLeaks in the past few months. Most recently WikiLeaks is threatening to leak documents from a bank that will expose wide-spread corrupt practices. As the bankers are sweating, the Economist discussed the myriad of options out there to protect data. But ultimately the suggestion was to decide what information is most critically private and focus on protecting it.

And what is more critically private than your donors’ personal information and giving history? Universities and hospitals have regulated layers of must-have data security, but thousands of nonprofit organizations do not. And more and more donor databases are hosted online. Even so, I would argue that the threats are more mundane than hackers. It is the accidental leak that poses perhaps the greatest threat to nonprofit organizations.

What hits the news harder than a laptop stolen that contained database or spreadsheet files full of names, addresses, social security numbers and other private info? But how about the university professor who posts a spreadsheet on a public server he thinks is private? Or the staff member who emails sensitive information to the wrong email address?

In my research I have found nonprofits who posted their confidential board list – the one with cell phone numbers, spouse names and more – on their website or attached to their public IRS Form 990. Out of pity and horror I emailed one webmaster suggesting they remove the file. I did not use the private information in my prospect profile.

There are thousands of examples of accidental errors, but what can you do to prevent them? Educate! Educating your staff and volunteers and then routinely reminding them goes a long way. Open discussion about something as simple as deleting old spreadsheet exports from your servers could avert disaster.

Consider purchasing a secure, online space for board members to view important documents instead of email and discuss the safety of any documents they download.

Establish one day a year devoted to security education and data storage clean-up so that everyone is talking, cleaning up old files, and reassigning files to safer storage space – online or offline.

Whatever you do, I hope you will seriously get thinking about your data security. Every time you hire a new employee, engage a new board member, or buy a new piece of software you face a certain degree of risk.

Aspire Research Group is committed to ethical fundraising and prospect research. Why not check out our fun, 7-minute video on ethics in prospect research? Click here.